Sunday, December 4, 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, 2011)

Forget the title: Page One: Inside the New York Times quickly establishes a protagonist, and it is not the hallowed (and expensively redecorated) halls of the Gray Lady. It is David Carr, the Times' media reporter and knight in shining armor for anyone trying to justify journalism as a relevant career in the 21st century. A former crack addict who put his life back together and even raised two kids by himself, Carr has a personal history that could make for an Oscar-baiter, but the forcefulness of his cigarette-ravaged voice makes an instant impression that instantly steals the show from Andrew Rossi's intended overview of the Times and the state of journalism at large.

Page One deals with the uncertain fate of America's most prestigious newspaper, and the print media in general, as news aggregates, technological innovations and simple mismanagement threaten to topple an entire industry. But all I cared about was seeing Carr blaze into action in debates with upstart pygmies looking to throw the last spear into print's dying white elephant, his airy rasp condescending to the likes of Shane Smith of Vice, Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, and Michael Wolff of Newser. Each walks into an argument with confidence bordering on arrogance, and Carr slices them all to ribbons. Whatever the Times pays him to write, he's worth it just to be the rock star spokesman for that old journalistic spirit. He may have a headset, an active Twitter account and a brand-name coffee always in hand, but Carr captures the spirit of the papermen as seen in classic movies: witty, unrelenting, but fair, albeit perfectly willing to hang you if you tied your own noose.

So captivating is Carr that, when he's offscreen, Page One comes to resemble No Nukes outside the show-stopping Springsteen performance. The banal minutiae of goings on at the Times is really no different from any other workplace, which is presumably the point of Rossi's film but also a problem when it comes to making the life of a journalist seem compelling. Part of Carr's defense of traditional media is the network of reporters who put themselves in harm's way to collect information, and we even see a business reporter, Tim Aragno, volunteer to replace departing writers at the Times' bureau in Baghdad (he's now the chief of that bureau). But Rossi never particularly stresses the bravery of that, of going into a war zone with a notepad and a camera, where U.S. troops are as likely to resent you as the indigenous population.

But then, Rossi doesn't do much to go into the Times' key failings, either. He gives space for both the Jayson Blair fiasco and Judith Miller's horrid reporting before the Iraq invasion, where her unthinking parroting of government-fed info was used by the Bush administration as proof of WMDs in Iraq. Just as Miller acted as stenographer for Bush, so too does Rossi faithfully report the Times' own party line on these disasters, which attributes them to individual oversights, not flaws in their model. This despite the fact that an archival interview shows the previous editor inadvertently revealing that the Times has no real antibody system to monitor itself for irregularities. The film also treats the larger problem of journalism's revenue problem as something wholly out of the hands of the print industry. Ignoring the PR issue journalism is having with the American people (whether it is justified or trumped-up), Rossi's subjects merely insist that the move of readers and ad revenue to the Internet unfairly undercut these prestigious businesses, No one even points out the ludicrous waste of the Times' new building, an ostentatious gallery clearly meant to show off the old-school class of the paper when the millions of dollars it cost might have been saved to keep at least a portion of the 100+ workers we see laid off during the film.

That Carr can obliterate all these quibbles with his mere presence is only further evidence to his abilities as a showman and kind of born again believer in print. He represents the Times at its best, mixing his dogged abilities as a talented, even-handed but probing writer with his quickly developed fondness for pooh-poohed modernizations like Twitter. He also spearheads the film's strongest section, the Times' reaction to the Tribune Company filing for bankruptcy. The sabotaging of a major print conglomerate by its buffoonish, businessman heads brings out the claws in the reporters, who clearly are so tired of fending off threats from outside that they will not tolerate those from within. The details Carr uncovers about the disgusting frat house atmosphere of Sam Zell's and Randy Michaels' running of Tribune Co. are horrific, and the disgust that creeps into Carr's chats with that company's employees is frightening in its outrage.

But the fact that the most inflamed anyone gets in this movie is when dealing with the navel-gazing of the media reporting on its own demise speaks to some of the problems traditional journalism is having in keeping an audience. While I believe the media should keep tabs on itself (it might have prevented those Blair and Miller episodes if done properly), we live in a time of unending, international-level news, and for the reporters here to get more up in arms about poker games at the Trib than lies in Iraq is distressing. Just listen to some Times writers cover their asses when Wikileaks gets the scoop over everyone; one guy insists that the now-infamous edited video "Collateral Murder" is propagandizing falsehood, only to stammer out yet more justification for the Establishment when someone points out that Wikileaks posted the full video and it doesn't particularly exonerate the U.S. military. The film makes a strong case for the necessity of, if not print media itself, at least the network of bureaus and standards it created. But for all the anger the subjects show toward internal attacks on journalism, Page One never truly considers the extent to which papers got themselves into this mess in the first place.


  1. Damn, dude. The only folks I know who post as often as you have been lately are the folks from "Wow Gold." You're still, like, going to classes, I hope. :)

    Anyway, I've printed off several of your reviews to spread out over time, and of what I've read so far, this is one of my favorites. You capture well how Carr becomes the caped crusader of the doc, for better and worse.

    As for the implications of the doc ...

    I have lots of friends and family still in the newspaper business, or, because they bailed when they got the chance, just barely outside it. Of the few who have seen this, their reactions are a bit mixed: as newspaper junkies, this thing could have carried on for 8 hours and not totally satisfied them, and of course they're all too aware of the issues not examined to their fullest (tough crowd, journalists), but they also seem to think that the doc hits on the broad actions and emotions of what's been going on fairly well. And I'd agree. The most depressingly accurate line in the movie is the one from Carr, providing voice-over narration from one of his columns, talking about yet another party with sheet cake. Yep, that's been the way of things.

    FWIW …

    * I don’t begrudge the Times its new building. Lasting companies need adequate facilities, which means it was only a matter of time before they needed to build something, and whereas real estate eventually can be paid off, salaries of existing positions go on forever, so not building would have saved some staff for now but not forever.

    * I don’t think newspapers’ “PR issue” has much to do with how they got here. This process has been too gradual and long in coming for that. But I do think that PR issue will make it very challenging for newspapers to recover (already conceding they’ll never be what they were). That moment when Carr cuts out all the parasitic stories that relied on newspaper coverage to be authored in the first place? That’s a demonstration that the entire public needs, and yet they probably wouldn’t retain it. My generation (at the fringe end of Gen X) and the ones after it are under the false impression that they don’t read newspapers, even when they do, and that they don’t need them, even though they do, because sites like HuffPost (which I generally refuse to go to for this very reason) are so good at rewriting in an effort to seem original. (Aside: In my previous job, a high profile reporter from ESPN ripped off my story without attribution and then yelled at me for calling him on it. True story. Point being, even the big companies feed off one another, which just blurs the line.)

    * It’s interesting, but not all that surprising, that you found the doc seemed to have misplaced priorities – navel gazing in a time of world chaos. I see that now, but it didn’t occur to me during the film, because I was happy to have newspapers be the subject. It would be rude to compare laid off newspaper reporters eating sheet cake through teary eyes to US soldiers killed overseas. Nevertheless, newspapers are dying, and there is a human cost to that that’s very real, even if not as tragic as other things going on in the world. (I know you know this; just framing how I saw the movie.)

    OK, that’s ramble enough. I could chat about this subject for days.

  2. I think the movie succeeds, especially through Carr, in presenting an old-school attitude that shows why journalism matters (as you say, it hits the broad emotions). I think it also had some great moments that showed the myopic view of some of these would-be usurpers; my favorite moment in the film is that Intelligence Squared debate where Carr holds up the "Newser page" if newspapers really did die off and it's just an empty sheet with the content cut out.

    It's why I think Carr makes such a good pitch man not just for the Times but all print media. He's blunt, sarcastic yet clearly passionate, and I think he can frame an argument of textbook platitudes in such a way that those who don't think they need papers will suddenly pay attention.

    In fact, I think the doc is about as good as can be, which means it suffers the same seemingly insurmountable issues as its subject. I didn't expect this movie to have all the answers or even to really make an airtight case for print for my generation; if someone knew how to do that, they'd be on the Times payroll for an insane amount, not documenting them. My issues with it stem with my issues toward print media itself, which are largely presented without comment and in some cases tacitly supported. There is no easy answer to this, which is why I was disappointed the movie tried to find one wherever possible, even if they had to omit a whole bunch of pertinent info to do so.